How You Can Foster a Safe Space for Real Conversations

Susan Narjala   |   March 8, 2022 

Here’s a riddle for you.

What’s the thing that people are really great at giving but prefer not to receive?

 I’ll give you a moment to think about it... Okay, that was the buzzer going off.

Well, you can congratulate yourself — there are possibly several right answers to that question. But I was thinking of one in particular: advice.

People love giving advice. It’s doled out in generous spadefuls like thalis at an Andhra Mess. But when you’re at the receiving end of it, it feels like you’re being slammed by some really big waves at a beach you didn’t want to be at in the first place.

When a conversation devolves into a one-sided spew of advice, I tend to shut down. I pretend I’m listening, but my defences go up, I clam up, and the exchange becomes nothing more than niceties.

Yet, despite the fact that I dislike getting advice, I don’t entirely relinquish the “agony aunt” role. It’s may not be conscious or deliberate, but when a friend shares about a tough spot she’s in, I find myself providing unasked-for counsel or thinking up solutions on her behalf. Or, worse still, I think it’s my Christian “duty” to sermonize or at least share a verse.

Perhaps it’s well-intentioned, but when we step into the shoes of an advice-giver, we end up uprooting real, raw, honest, soul-baring conversations.

Here’s something that we can do instead — we can listen and listen well.

Engaged listening doesn’t mean we turn into remodelling experts intent on overhauling the crumbling decor of our friends’ lives. Engaged listening is about empathy. It means that we enter the other person’s situation and emotions, allowing ourselves to walk in their shoes, however uncomfortable and inconvenient that might be.

If you and I want to be empathetic listeners, here are some statements we should avoid like candy bars on a Keto diet.

“If I were you, I would…”

We are not in the other person’s shoes. We don’t know the nuances or weight of their story. We will never have their history or their DNA. We can never assume to have the answers to their situation. We are essentially telling the person who is hurting: "Clearly, there is a viable solution that you are not considering." Providing a fix is akin to assigning blame.

“I had it worse when…”

Comparing our situation to theirs is simply not helpful.

You should have…” or “Why didn’t you…?”

‘Should’ statements. The less said about them the better. No one needs the pressure of shoulda’s and coulda’s.

“Don’t worry about it…”

Even if their problem seems trivial to us, dismissing and minimizing it, is hurtful to the person who is sharing.

“Calm down first…”

No one who has been instructed to calm down has ever calmed down.

"Well, if you look on the bright side..."

You know who speaks of silver linings around dark clouds? Those who are not already drenched in the thunderstorm. Unless we ourselves are soaking wet and holding out the only available umbrella for our friend, it would be wise to hold off chirpy weather-report-like comments.

Those are just some phrases that tend to halt a meaningful conversation in its tracks.

What we can do, then, to foster a safe space for vulnerable conversation?

I don’t believe there are any magic words we could say that could instantly create an atmosphere conducive to sharing. There’s no conversation-starter card game to get someone to pour their heart out. In fact, like the pop song goes, “You say it best when you say nothing at all.” (Yes, I may have just revealed my vintage by referring to a song from the ’80s, but let’s just call it a "timeless classic" for all generations, shall we?). Simply being available for someone, sitting with them in their pain, and holding space in your life for them — those might the key to a vulnerable exchange. Scripture reminds us to "Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn." (Romans 12: 15)

When someone is inclined to share with you, yes, by all means, point them to Jesus because you and I sure don’t hold the answers to their problem. If they give you the opportunity, pray with them, or share a verse if the situation calls for it. But loving others well often comes down to imitating Jesus when He left everything to be with us. Your presence — even especially if you don’t have words of advice — is a gift to someone who is hurting.

Real conversations take place in the context of strong relationships. Your hurting friend is unlikely to open your heart up to the Airtel lady who answers the phone with “How may I help you today?” She is likely to share when there is a foundation of trust. And trust takes time. It takes integrity and confidentiality. It takes effort.

When we listen with our hearts and not just our ears, we enter into the fray of the other person’s emotions. When we fill that sacred space with God’s unconditional love, it leaves little room for advice and much real estate for vulnerable conversation.



The following two tabs change content below.
When she's not smuggling chocolate past her kids or drinking gallons of coffee, Susan Narjala can be found writing, baking and (thinking about) working out. She grew up in Chennai, lived in Portland, Oregon, for the last ten years and is now back in India with her family. She finds nuggets of humour in the everyday, and writes about it on on her blog,

Latest posts by Susan Narjala (see all)

Tagged on:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

From Our Archives

© 2024 IndiAanya. All rights reserved. Designed by NWD.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram